Who and what count as Christian?

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It seems appropriate to ask this on Christmas. But the timing is not coincidental or sentimental; the question has been forced into the public arena by Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins’s personal decision to wear a hijab in “human solidarity” with vulnerable Muslims in America as part of her observation of Advent, and by the college’s hamhanded and tone-deaf meanness in fanning the flames of the ensuing controversy.

Technically, apparently, the “Christian” (note my pointed scare quotes) college near Chicago suspended the tenured political science professor not for wearing the hijab, but for asserting that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, which led to a widespread “Christian” hue and cry about something to do with how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Whatever. If I sound dismissive, that’s because I am. In a pompous statement issued on December 11, Wheaton College asserted its “distinctively evangelical Christian identity” and condescendingly referred to “complex theological matters” that can be properly understood only by credentialed expert theologians. Beware anyone, from any faction, who insists that you trust the experts.

Why should the rest of us care, if we don’t work at or attend Wheaton College, or even attend church? Because, over most of my lifetime, we’ve all had to watch and suffer while political Christianity has done to America what political Islam has done to many other countries: aggressively claim rhetorical dominance and the moral high ground in public life in the name of its version of religion. It’s long past time that the rest of us pushed back just as aggressively.

Part of that pushback needs to be in the form of self-identified Christians themselves reclaiming from the “Christian” bullies the right to define what it means to be Christian. This is what Larycia Hawkins and some courageous Wheaton College students have done. It’s necessary to emphasize that I’m not – and we shouldn’t be – against Christians or Christianity per se. Some of my best friends are Christians. And it’s just as unfair to blame all Christians for the bigotry and violence of the worst among them as it is to stigmatize all Muslims. But, by the same token, if Muslims are to be required to repudiate their own extremists, so should Christians be. We should all be against bullies, and much of the battle needs to be fought precisely on the terrain of what is meant by the phrase “Christianity per se.”

I don’t claim to be a Christian – and much of the reason for that is that I was pushed away from the religion by the American bullies who claim its mantle. But I’m as conversant in what counts as Christian as the next lapsed churchgoer. Perhaps moreso, since my father is not only not lapsed but a long-serving (and long-suffering, now retired) Episcopal parish priest. But he’s probably not Christian enough for the people at Wheaton College either. One thing I do claim to know, because I learned it from him, is that Jesus was not a bully.

When I discussed the Larycia Hawkins incident with my father, he raised a powerful rhetorical question: “If Jesus were alive today, would he be a Christian?” The answer lies somewhere along the frontier between the arrogated prerogatives of institutions (whether the papacy or Wheaton College, it matters not) and the freedom of the individual conscience. And no less a Christian than Dostoevsky addressed it with brutal honesty in his great thought experiment “The Grand Inquisitor.”

Wheaton College’s claim to a “distinctively evangelical Christian identity” seems to be connected to those “complex theological matters” to which it knowingly alludes in its statement. What needs to be challenged is not the credentials of Wheaton’s theologians, but the underlying presumption that understanding what it means to be Christian requires a credentialed theologian. Larycia Hawkins gets that. “I want the focus to be taken away from Wheaton not doing right by me,” she told The Guardian in a remarkable interview just before going home to Oklahoma for Christmas.

That’s bad – but what’s even worse is the kind of tolerance toward the bigotry, for the hatred, for Islamophobia, for the political rhetoric – and [how] we don’t check politicians. Because we’re too lazy, too intellectually lazy to … say that’s against American values. It’s against Christian values. It’s not what the Bible teaches me to do. As a little girl, I’ve known to love thy neighbor. That’s the message.

See – you don’t have to be a theologian to understand what it means to be Christian; you just have to be a little girl being raised by nice people in Oklahoma. Merry Christmas.

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